Saturday, April 28, 2012

Book Clubs: Developing Community or Provoking Conformity

In the new-fangled course I'm teaching that allows teachers from fourteen schools to collaborate, we have a book club or literacy circle that can offer students a choice of fourteen different books to study.  It's all online on different types of discussion forum sites that any student can read and follow and add to during class or from home.  Each teacher just hosts one site.  Here's mine.  It's not nearly as impressive as some of the others, but it gets 'er done.

We've been trying to get students to connect in a variety of ways for the past two months, and this seems to be something that really works to develop community between teenagers across school divides.  Students each can pick any of the books based on their own taste in literature, and I think that is the key to the success of this activity.


Students aren't connecting because they were thrown into random groups.  Instead, their interests created the groups.  They're not playing games in an effort to get them to talk to each other; they're talking about topics that authentically interest them, and they're creating new topics of their own for others to discuss.  It takes little effort to get students talking about a topic they all find intriguing.

But the One-Book-One-School/City/Whatever movement is a very different beast.  Instead of connecting people by their personal tastes, people who want to connect to others drag themselves through a book they don't necessarily enjoy.  It doesn't create a love of books in burgeoning readers who find the task burdensome, and can even have the opposite effect: teaching kids that reading can sometimes be a drag.  It doesn't always cultivate a community that can identify with one another, but instead develops into a group that can end up divided by their reactions to the book (often reactions that are surreptitiously denied expression so the splintered factions can't even discover one another).

In larger circles, where the idea is an open option that people can get involved with when the book choice is desirable, these groups can be useful.  This is particularly true over the internet where various one-books are being read by various people everywhere.  That's cool.

But in schools, in particular, when they might just focus on one book each year, the end result can be frustrating and even devastating when some students feel ostracized for not joining or not liking the book that they think everyone else in the school loves.

It's interesting that in our age of celebrating diversity, we still hope or expect everyone to be the same.  It's one thing to hope that everyone can enjoy reading; it's quite another to expect them to enjoy reading the same kind of book.  That's just silly.


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